CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — Chapel Hill, N.C. -- Roy Williams wore the exasperation of a father whose children have yet to grasp a lesson they've heard a thousand times.
He was signaling his rookie point guard to push the ball up the floor, but the gesture also symbolized the haste with which freshman Bobby Frasor and a reworked rotation at North Carolina have had to come on and mature in a hurry.
"I did more mental preparation than before any season I've ever done, just to remind myself to go slow," Williams said. "We've got to be solid and build the foundation, yet do enough to get us through some games."
The reigning NCAA champions are in the midst of a historic rebuilding job, as last year's top seven scorers all moved on.
North Carolina is fresh off a rout of Arizona, but enters the Comcast Center tonight against Maryland with losses in three of its last four Atlantic Coast Conference games. Three of the Tar Heels' next four are at the Smith Center, but they stand seventh in the 12-team ACC and their season is clearly in the balance.
Williams could take a team to the second round of the NCAA tournament for the 17th straight year, something that has been done just once before, by Dean Smith, his mentor. If North Carolina has hit a wall, however, it could land on the wrong side of the bubble and become the first not to defend its NCAA title since Louisville in 1987.
Midwesterners Frasor and Tyler Hansbrough were ticket-holders at the 2005 Final Four. Their importance to the program magnified over the next two weeks, as freshman Marvin Williams and juniors Raymond Felton, Sean May and Rashad McCants placed their names in the NBA draft.
A senior class of Jackie Manuel, Jawad Williams and Baltimorean Melvin Scott was also done, so North Carolina started this season nearly from scratch. It's not just the freshmen who try the coach's patience. In a recent loss to Boston College, Williams ripped off his blazer and tore into junior Reyshawn Terry over a careless pass.
Williams disagreed with a point made by BC coach Al Skinner, that it may be easier to teach when everyone is starting fresh.
"I think it's easier for Duke's freshmen," Williams said, "because they've got Shelden [Williams] and J.J. [Redick], a security blanket."
Terry, who has started every game, played as much as 10 minutes five times last season. Senior forward David Noel, who was the second man off the bench last year, is the undisputed leader of these Tar Heels, but Hansbrough has had relatively few growing pains in the lane.
May was a dancing bear of a big man. Hansbrough is more a bull in the china shop, an active banger who never stays put. At 6 feet 9 and 235 pounds, the Missouri native is averaging team highs of 18.2 points and 7.6 rebounds, and is a lock for ACC Rookie of the Year.
He and Noel team for nearly six offensive rebounds a game, vital to a group that is susceptible in a half-court game.
Last April, North Carolina was just the third scoring champion to win an NCAA title, but these Tar Heels could become only the third Williams team in his 18 seasons as a head coach to average less than 80 points. They're not always strong enough to finish their chances, but Williams would rather they try when it's three-on-two as opposed to five-on-five.
"I can't imagine a scenario where I wouldn't run," Williams said. "If you tell me that I may get two or three easy baskets a game, that's a huge plus, because I may never get an easy one against your set defense.
"That becomes more paramount if I'm inexperienced, or just don't have a guy who can beat you one-on-one. We don't have that guy. We might score eventually in an open-court situation. We may never score in the half court."
Hansbrough turned 20 before he ever played a college game, but Frasor is one of four teenagers on the roster. Marcus Ginyard and Danny Green are 18.
"We're learning at a much quicker rate than other freshmen, because we were thrown into the fire," Frasor said. "You learn quicker that way, but at the same time, we make more mistakes. The one thing we've had to practice the most is our defensive principles, movement off the ball. It's getting better, but Coach gets frustrated when he has to repeat things."
Williams spent five seasons as a high school coach, and Joe Holladay, his right-hand man, was at that level for 23 years. Steve Robinson got his start at Radford when it was a starter program.
His top four aides either played for Williams at Kansas or assisted him there, a group that has worked three of the last four Final Fours. He's only been running the show here since 2003, and will oversee yet another overhaul next autumn, when what could be the nation's deepest recruiting class arrives.
These Tar Heels have beaten No. 18 N.C. State and been ranked as high as No. 17, but the freshmen discovered what it meant to wear the uniform after losses at Southern California and Virginia, where fans stormed the court. The loss in Charlottesville led to a talk about expectations and stress.
"I had to tell them, if you keep trying as hard as you can, you're going to be OK," Williams said. "Don't worry, just play. We have guys who are diving on the floor, going out of bounds, playing as hard as they possibly can, but they've got the deer-in-the-headlights look on them. You have to tell them everything is going to be all right."